Calgary's Women of Hope

Punjabi Bride by Raman Gill

Throughout the lobby for A Thousand Splendid Suns you will find photos and biographies of remarkable Calgarian women who, through extraordinary circumstances, have made their way from all around the world to Canada.

It is with the generous help of the following organizations that we are able to share these local stories of resilience, hope and the power of the human spirit. 

The Calgary Immigrant Education SocietyCentre for Newcomers, Canadian Women for Women of Afghanistan, Calgary Catholic Immigrant Services, Alberta Network of Immigrant Women, Calgary Ismaili Muslim Community, Afghan Canadian Association of Calgary, Canadian Cultural Mosaic Foundation

SABA (Dubai)

“My first years in Dubai, it was awesome. I came to Dubai when I was seven months old. I came originally from Iraq. I moved with my family there, and I grew up there, I went to British school there, and you know, I went to University, I got married, I had my kids, I built my career.

Dubai is very modern, lots and lots of services, it’s a safe country; there’s lots of entertainment, it very modern, lots of tourism, so it was really good. But the reason we left is, see: it’s all about that superficial, the façade part of it. It’s very materialistic. It was not building values. And, towards, let’s say the past ten years, it became more of treating Dubai citizens differently from those who are ex-patriots. Regardless of the years you had lived there, you’re never a permanent resident, and you will never be a citizen. Even my kids, who were born there, even my siblings who were born there: it does not matter, if you’re not originally from there.

For example, I went to dentistry school, I’m a doctor of dental surgery, and when I graduated, I was not able to work as a dentist. They had graduates who were Dubai citizens, and they will get the eligibility or the opportunity to work. But I still managed to build my career.

When I left Dubai, I was a manager in human resources at a national oil and gas company. So here, we’ve compromised a lot. Now, I’m a career planner for a youth employment program, so it’s kind of like, when I came to Canada, the resumes were different, we never had to write a cover letter, and I had to learn, but now I’m helping them! So, there’s lots of things that I have learned through the different organizations in Calgary where they are helping immigrants like CCIS and Immigrant Services Calgary, and I am so grateful to the services because they helped me a lot.”

At the time of this interview, Saba has been in Canada for one year, three months, and six days. She is here with her husband and two children.


ROYA (Afghanistan)

I am here with my mother, my siblings, my husband and my three children. I’ve been here since November 2000, and my life has totally changed. So many good things have happened in my life. I worked at CIWA, the Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association for a year, and spent some time as a skilled worker with the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society and as a Bilingual Family Assistant at Calgary Bridge Foundation for Youth. Through my experience, I was inspired to go back to school for Social work.

I am now in my second year as a social work student, and I love it.

In comparison to my life here, growing up in Afghanistan was very hard, because during the communist regime, my dad disappeared. My dad went missing because he was one of the Hazara nation, an Ismaili Muslim, and he was educated, he was the head of his people. Any new regime came, and we were always the targets. At the time of his disappearance, my mom was pregnant with me, and she had another five children.  My mom was only twenty-seven, and for me, she’s my hero, because she raised us and she did work outside, and all of us, we were educated. She valued education so much, so even when we didn’t have food, or anything to burn to keep warm in the winter, she made sure we were educated.

She had no help from her family. And she was abused so many times. I saw it when my mom wanted my sister to get married. All of my cousins and uncles, they came to our place. I will never forget that memory, never ever: about a hundred men came and they were beating my mom in front of my eyes. Because they said, “You’re a woman, how come you can decide to marry your daughter to somebody?”

But things got better. My brothers were able to support my mother, and I started at university, studying literature. Then, when the Taliban got in, the university got shut up. Everything got closed. We were not allowed to go outside. So, we had to escape, we had to flee the country. First, we escaped to the mountains in Baghlan province. We lived for months there, in the caves. Then we went to Pakistan, to a refugee camp. 

My brother began to teach in the camps, and after a few months, he brought some forms home. They were Canadian Government sponsorship forms, and we filled them out. Four of us, my mother, who was a widow, my older brother, who was single, my brother who was a teacher and myself, we got accepted to have an interview. At the end of the interview, the lady said, “Welcome to Canada!” I’ll never forget that moment.

Roya met and fell in love with the man who would become her husband when she was a teenager in Afghanistan. He was her very first date. They lost touch for many years, but against all odds, she found him again after coming to Canada, and they were married. They now live in Calgary with their three children.


JAMILA (Afghanistan)

"Growing up in Afghanistan, we had our childhood delights. We spent many nights sleeping on the cool roof, under the stars, on dry summer nights. We would save our Eidi (gifts of money, offered to children and loved ones on Eid) and spend it on street vendors, who offered mouth-watering treats. As we grew older and the war commenced, the majority of our lives were overshadowed by fear, both ours and our parents’. Slowly that sense of dread that built up in us every day became the norm. I can’t pinpoint exactly when that feeling began for me, but I can feel it in my oldest memories. In school, in addition to the traditional curriculum, we were taught how to survive in a war torn country. We weren’t allowed to pick up any little treasures, such as a nice pen or an article of clothing that we found outside, because chances were those items were placed strategically over a landmine.

Of course, boys were given priority when it came to schooling, but I was one of the more fortunate girls whose family allowed them to attend school. After I completed my secondary education, I was provided with the opportunity to attend a post-secondary institution. However, conditions deteriorated within society, as the Mujahedeen shut the schools down and banned women from attending. They were forced to stay at home, get married at young ages because their parents feared for their lives. In the mid-90’s, there were reports of refugees moving to Canada from Pakistan, so we left Afghanistan in pursuit of this opportunity. We lived in Pakistan for almost five years until we finally received our refugee sponsorship from Canada.

In Afghanistan, Canada had been made out to be a utopia. Canada is recognized as a free, democratic society and one of the few places around the world that we knew would guarantee our children’s futures. I’m very happy to confirm that Canada has definitely exceeded our expectations. Canada is an incredibly accepting society. I have never felt discriminated against when it came to gender, race or religion. But one of the utmost struggles I’ve dealt with in Canada has to be the language. It’s very difficult to express yourself with a language you aren’t familiar with. People doubt your intelligence when they hear an accent. But now I have completed my post-secondary education in accounting, and my eldest daughter is attending the University of Calgary and my younger children are preparing to complete high school.”

Jamila is here with her siblings, her mother, her husband and her children. They all had to come separately over a period of three years. Jamila misses the food from Afghanistan, which is heavily influenced by its seven bordering countries.


EKENE (United Kingdom)

“In 2011, we made the decision that we needed to leave the UK for the sake of our children. Things were getting expensive and the youth violence and teenage pregnancy was at an all-time high. I worked with the police with high-risk youths and I saw the growing gang violence and criminality. When I worked with young boys who couldn’t walk from one area of the city to another without being questioned, robbed or beaten up by other neighbourhood boys, then I knew this was a big problem. When I looked at my son at the time who was only two years old, I remember saying to my husband that I didn’t want the police knocking at my door to either say ‘My son had been stabbed,’ OR ‘My son has stabbed someone.’ So it was vital that we came to a place where children can be children.

I loved London as child because it is very fast and fun when you are young. We didn’t experience half the things this generation goes through now. I lived a good life and grew very quickly in my career. In Calgary, I had to start from the bottom, due to not having Canadian experience, which was one of the hardest things to deal with. It was very scary. It was so different to what I was used to: the driving, the food, the language (little changes like trousers/pants), the culture. My oldest child struggled at first with such a big change because she left all her friends and family. 

But Calgary is very quiet and family-oriented. It’s beautiful with all the mountains and views, and now my children say they want to live here forever!”

Ekene came here from London, England, with her husband and four children in August of 2012.


Another story from Afghanistan

“I was a doctor in my country, and I came to Canada in 2002, January 22, and it was minus forty.
My life was good and bad. I was in grade two when my mother died. I had a very nice dad, he was very good, but he died when I was in grade eleven. After that, my life was difficult, very, very difficult. But I worked hard to become a doctor. First, I went to Russia when I was eighteen years old. I did my medical studies there, and got married when I was in class five. When we came back to Afghanistan, it was the Taliban time. Although the Taliban respected us a lot because I was a woman doctor, there wasn’t any school for girls, and my daughter was seven years old, she should go to school. In Afghanistan, the other thing was, in the Taliban, if they caught somebody, they would say he’s a thief, but you don’t know if they’re really a thief or not. And they wanted my husband to cut off their hands, but we said there’s no proof that they are a thief or not.

So, I sacrificed my life for my kids so they could become educated. We went, and we left everything, everything in Afghanistan. We told the Taliban that we were going to some party in Iran, and we just took a small bag of our dress clothes. Because the situation was not good; it was a very dark time in Afghanistan, because women can’t work, just doctors and nurses can work, no other women. No girls can go to school. When a boy goes to school, there wasn’t a good education, nothing. Women can’t go out alone – I always sat in the car with my husband and then he dropped me at the front door of the hospital. When I left my country, it was 1984. And then we came back in ’96, and suddenly…  We had to cook our food with wood, we warmed our house up with wood; it was a very, very difficult life.

I’m proud I am from Afghanistan. Afghan people are very nice people, very good people, but unfortunately, the Taliban are not. Unfortunately, they’re using the name of Islam and doing bad things. All religion is good, all religion is saying good things: don’t lie, don’t rape people, don’t steal, don’t do bad things. But these people are using the name of religion and doing bad things for their own pocket. 

Right now, I am working with the Calgary Progressive Lifestyle Foundation; I take care of disabled people. I’m happy to help the people who need it. Thanks God, I have two clients, both of them very nice, and their families: fantastic. In Canada, people are, they are unbelievable. They are very good people. Real Canadian people, they are very nice, and very good. But when immigrants come, they are very good people, too. And maybe there is a language barrier, or culture. They don’t get friendly the first time, when they first met. And step by step, when you know each other, you get more.

She is here with her four children. Her biggest wish is to go back to Afghanistan and open homes for women, seniors, disabled people, and children. 


RABAH (Libya)

“I was married and pregnant and living in what can be considered as a war zone, so my husband and I decided that the best move was for us to come here. The political climate in Libya after the Arab Spring of 2011 drove my family to search for a safer environment for us. Canada, since its conception, has been a harbour for immigrants; therefore, there was an embedded sentiment that not only would we strive in Canada, but we would fit in and not be shunned away.

Luckily, we didn’t feel like we encountered any trepidations or tremendous struggles when we came to Calgary. My parents were, however, very keen on making sure that we knew about our roots, culture, and history. Living in Libya, you notice the beauty that runs in every crevice of every stone building, you can feel the culture and the archaic stories that run through the ground that you walk on, the crashing of every wave tells ancient stories of colonialism, conquest, and victory. 

The thing I miss most about Libya is the peace we once knew.
The best thing that has happened to me since immigrating to Canada has been bringing my own family here to experience the great opportunities I did. Raising my daughter here in a peaceful and safe environment and knowing that she will have a great education and prosperous future has been the best thing.”

Rabah has come to Canada as an immigrant twice in her life. She came here with her family at the age of fourteen, and after staying for six years, moved to Germany and then back to Libya, where she married her husband.

STEPANKA (Czech Republic)

“My start in Canada was basically my third start in a new country. I had never been to Canada before we landed here with five suitcases and a container with all of our stuff following us on a freight ship. And to be honest, I didn’t expect any big differences. I quickly realized how naïve it was. I was so wrong! Canada definitely surprised me. To name one challenge, it took me some time to understand how Canadians express a critique. Canadians are definitely more respectful, polite and tactful. But at the same time, they are somehow inaccessible and indistinct in terms of privacy and personal feelings.

I grew up in Communist Czechoslovakia, but I had a very nice childhood. As a child, I didn’t perceive the political situation. I grew up in a big family house in Prague. We had a garden, we grew vegetables and we always had dogs. In 1989, there was the Velvet Revolution and the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. I was eleven years old and at that time I stared to realize the political changes.

A new start is always challenging; I had worries about finding a job and re-establishing of my identity. I started to make small steps, and to mention some of them, the Centre for Newcomers or Alberta Government workshops helped a lot! Very interesting was awareness of my changing identity. I experienced in practice what I learned during my studies of cultural anthropology – that everyone is to some point formed by surroundings. I am changing too… I think for me it is the hardest part of living abroad – the increasing distance between me before and me now.”

Stepanka has also lived in New Zealand and Germany. She has been here with her husband and two kids exactly three years since Valentine’s Day.


RAMAN - India

“I was the middle of three sibling sisters, and grew up in the times when boys in the Indian Society were given more importance because of discrimination towards girls; there was a wide gender gap and gender inequality. I was provided the opportunities to participate in school and extracurricular activities, and my parents would accompany the three sisters everywhere. Discipline was topmost, and the girls were not allowed to mingle with the opposite sex.  At the college and university level, because of gender discrimination, we sisters were not allowed to go for movies with friends or visit their homes, go on trips with boys, or be part of clubs. Festivals like Holi were not played in the household because of fear of boys smudging the colors on us. I played golf with my dad in the eighties in Punjab, but again was not allowed to play at the national level as it was a male-dominated sport.

The decision to come here happened when a friend was filling in a form to get immigration in Canada, when my husband got to know and told me about it. It was then we decided to fill in the immigration forms and see how things go. 

It is not easy to leave your home country. Especially, you miss the things that you did back with your family, the very little ethnic things of your own culture. Leaving our families, our careers, doing odd jobs that we were never trained or mentally prepared to do, and doing our degrees all over again so that we can be professionals in Canada were all struggles. However, I have truly discovered myself as a person and believe in myself.”

Raman dealt with the long process of coming to Canada, which she and her family began in 1999 and finally achieved in 2006.


A story from Nigeria

“In my country, there are a lot of issues that I wasn’t happy with. I needed a better place to raise my kids. I decided to come here in 2008, because my sister, and her husband, they are here already. So, any time they came back to Nigeria, they tell us stories, how Canada is good, they are happy.

Our educational system wasn’t really smooth. For example, a four-year degree program can take six, seven years because the teachers are always going on strike. And the students may agitate, you know, for things, and there will be riots, and their academics will be disrupted. And even after the long time they’ve spent in university, coming out, there’s no jobs. And when there is no jobs, the youths, they’re angry. Some of them go into crime.

At times, there’s kidnappings, because things are really bad there, people are hungry. And most of the time, the person who gets kidnapped gets killed. And again, in our country, there’s this Boko Haram, it’s a version of Al-Qaeda or ISIS, but in Nigeria, it’s called the Boko Haram. Even going to church, before, there is a time, before you enter the church, you would be searched from head to toe, because the suicide bombers, they go into the church and bomb people, so there’s security.
My first degree, I studied linguistics, and my second degree, I did a postgraduate diploma in education, and I also have a master’s degree in guidance and counselling. I’m excited, I’m happy to be here, but there is challenges here, that I am facing – getting a job with all my degrees, experience, still, we apply for a job, they say “You don’t have Canadian experience.” But this centre, Immigrant Education Services, they are so wonderful. Yeah, they are teaching you so many things.”

She has been here for three years with her four children – two sets of twins. She left Nigeria partially because of Boko Haram, the terrorist organization notorious for the “Chibok Schoolgirls” kidnapping.

DESIREE - Mainland China

“We came here with a belief that a new and bright future awaits here, but we still felt helpless and insecure. We could not find jobs and the winter was so fierce. I kept thinking about going home until I found my job.  I am now working for the Centre for Newcomers, a non-profit organization. It is a really rewarding experience for me to work with people with multicultural backgrounds. I began to realize how joyous it can be to help immigrants and those who need assistance.

I remembered when I took the shuttle bus in Beijing; I couldn’t control myself and cried in public. My parents worked in the rural area of the city, so I grew up in a small village. We kids started knowing each other since kindergarten. It is hard to leave everything and come here to seek a better future. It is weird that no matter how much you dislike its polluted environment and big population, you still feel that attachment inside of you with your country. 

Living in Calgary is totally different from where I used to live. People here are more respecting privacy; finding a job, you have to do the networking plus strong academic background. And people care for the environment: they think it is everyone’s responsibility to maintain it. People here are more for sports: hiking and swimming and skiing. I really enjoy to go hiking with my family members.”

Desiree has been in Calgary for five years and three months. She is here with her spouse and kids.

A story from Mexico

“Me and my husband, we came together. I was working at the government in the agency that reviewed taxes, and the things started going a little bit bad because the government in December 2006 declare the war against drug dealers. So, my profession became a little bit risky. By 2007, I decided to quit my job, because people were leaving notes on my car – so I started to feel fear. A couple of times, my neighbour told me she saw a car behind me, so that was the reason I ran away from that job. At that time, my husband and I were looking at having a baby, and for two, three years, we couldn’t have babies. So, we decide to put all our papers in by 2007, so be January 2008, we came to Canada.

We almost spent two years in B.C. After that, I became pregnant, and we made the decision to come back home because the employers say they can’t extend it, our permit. I had, at the time, seven months, and so we came to Calgary and I started to feel a little bit bad. So, I went to the doctor and she said, “You know what? It is too risky to go back. If you fly, the baby is going to abort.” 
So, the baby was born at eight months, and at that time, our permit was expired. And we were more nervous, because we didn’t want to break the law. But the government gave three months to restore the status. We send in all the papers to the immigration, and they want to meet us at the immigration office. So, all the things we explain to the lady, and she says, ‘I have the final decision.’ So, seven or eight days later, she sent the work permit for my husband, and I say thank god, because finally we can prove, and this is most important for me, to show that it wasn’t with a purpose to force the situation.”

She came to Canada with her husband, and has since had two children. She lived in Ciudad Juarez, which, according to National Geographic, was known as the most dangerous place on earth from 2008-2012. In its worst year, Ciudad Juarez saw 3,700 murders.